Balance in pop arrangements

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hyperbolica
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Balance in pop arrangements

Post by hyperbolica »

Sometimes in quartet we are playing what I know to be a good arrangement (from recordings) and yet it sounds like crap. All the right notes and rhythms, but none of the spirit of the music. It strikes me that the relative balance around the lead part has the potential to really ruin how a tune is performed. I can hear it in my head how it should go, but I can't convey that and the other members just aren't getting it.

Does anyone else run into this, specifically with balance, regardless of the style ?
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harrisonreed
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by harrisonreed »

Sure. If the recording is good it was probably balanced perfectly in the mix, with close mics. That is tough to do live. For pop tunes, equipment matters too -- smallish bores. You need a lot of front and the melody needs to punch.

What piece are you guys doing?
hyperbolica
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by hyperbolica »

I don't mean recordings, I mean as we're playing it in a rehearsal room. This has happened a number of times on different new tunes, usually something the others are not familiar with. Take Ozzy's Mamma I'm Coming Home for example. On first reading, it's hard to tell what's the melody, decant or just a harmony part. Even if everyone gets all the notes, the tune can be spoiled if the parts are out of whack balance wise. No recording, just acoustic. From knowing that tune, the melody is prominent, but if you were to perform it with 4 equal parts (lead, high harmony, harmony/rhythm and bass) , would it still be recognizable? I say the balance makes it hard to recognize, and traditional quartet style is hard to adapt to styles with dominant lead parts, like pop music.
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harrisonreed
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by harrisonreed »

Right, sorry I wasn't clearer. You said they sound like good arrangements based on recordings -- those are probably mixed perfectly so they are deceiving.

It is difficult to be "right" on pop arrangements live if they are muddy, like you describe. Having four trombones (instead of a mix of instruments) won't help, especially if they are all large bores. So, knowing that those are the difficulties, here is how I'd approach it.

1. The melody should be highlighted, annotated, or color coded by the player in their part. It shouldn't be mystery as to who is playing melody. Likewise, the dynamics should be annotated over whatever is printed by the players so they know what they actually have to do for balance. If the melody is bouncing between parts within a phrase ... It's a bad arrangement.

2. When the melody it's in another part, everyone should write that in their part ("listen for Sarah", or, "bill takes over"). Then it's not a mystery

3. It sucks, but for pop tunes, the melody really be played on a small bore instrument. If you're trying to bounce the melody around between parts, it gets impractical because everyone will want a small tenor and then you're back to a quartet that has a homogeneous sound, instead of distinct sounds.

4. It has to punch. The melody should be played like a singer sings it. I don't know many legato or slurry pop tunes. So you need to know the words, the context, the diction. If the vocalist slides into notes or has a unique vibrato, that might be worth emulating.

5. You need some drums. Drums help out immensely. That's why BQ arrangements of pop tunes usually suck.

That's all I got though. Good luck
boneagain
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by boneagain »

I second Harrison's suggestions and add a couple of my own.

1) Goes with Harrison's #4: pay EXTRA attention to everyone who does NOT have the melody. Often you will hear players get a bit sloppy when they have background parts. This is the opposite of the needed effect. The background needs to be REALLY clean to be able to recede from the listener's ear. This is SUPER important on ballades. With slower lines many players slow down articulation. Legato of the accompaniment MUST be crisp and tight to stay out of the way of the "lead."

2) Make sure NON-melody follows Roger Voisin's advice: n'insiste-pas! Frequently pop backgrounds have lots of "footballs". If you make EVERY football an sfz you REALLY create a distraction. If, on the other hand, you play footballs the same volume all the way through, you create mud. The trick is to attach and then stop insisting on the note.

Actually, I would suggest that THESE factors ARE traditional quartet style. I really do not know of a style of music that does NOT become clearer to the listener by following the suggestions so far (except drums, although even there... listen to "Vienna Horns..."

In my ears many quartets get into a self-defeating escalation. Gabrielli always starts of nicely enough, but as each player comes in and falls in love with his or her line, the volume rises and the texture thickens. Before you know it: mud. Picking a line to make more obvious to the audience and NOT insisting on the other lines, and making the subordinate lines SUPER clear goes a long way to clearing up that mud.
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Doug Elliott
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by Doug Elliott »

When I write charts I try to indicate "lead" "harmony" or "bkgrnd" in addition to appropriate dynamics and CORRECT articulations, note lengths, phrase markings, and breaths. If those things aren't marked, you need to mark them yourself, or else everybody thinks every note is equally important.

Blame the lazy arranger (or publisher) who didn't do their job.
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by hyperbolica »

Part of the problem I'm running into is that the part volumes are marked separately, but the players interpret most markings as "play at the same volume as the rest of the group", like you'd do in classical music, instead of the soloistic/background levels intended.

This week we had an arrangement of Santana "Smooth" that no one but me was familiar with. The reading was cacophonous and such a disaster that it turned everyone against the tune - but I know it's a good arrangement.

Often the melody moves between parts, and getting them to rise and fall with that is difficult. Some people don't seem to "get" the soloistic style.

Once we read "Birdland" and one excellent player kept adding a beat to a measure even after it was pointed out. We abandoned it and blamed the arranger just to keep from insulting this guy (actually one of the best semi-pros in the area).

A year ago we got "Jump In The Line" (Belafonte), "Putting On The Ritz", and "When I Wish Upon A Star" that started out badly, but once they got the tune in their heads, we made progress, and now these are some favorites. Sometimes I'll play the melody line on bass to demonstrate, but I don't want to be seen "that know-it-all Hyperbolica who dropped out of music school".

I think pop tunes can be arranged with the rhythm in the harmony and bass lines in such a way that you can play without drums. We have plenty of successful tunes, but every now and then something just evades us. I'm sure we could benefit from a coach of some sort.

I'm conscious of ax choices, but I don't think it limits us. Not everyone has a different horn for every style. We have a 78h, 36b, Yammie. 547 straight, and me on the Kanstul bass. Sometimes I'll play a 4th part on 88h, and I take some lead parts on a 79h or Olds Recording. I look at each player/instrument as a voice in a choir. Each is slightly different and distinct from the rest, but they all come together in a single sound.

Highlighting the lead/solos is a good idea, and I think making people conscious of what we need to do and why will also help. Of course along with listening to some recordings and comparing with recordings of ourselves.
boneagain
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by boneagain »

A lot of players have trouble listening while they play.
A lot of players have never actually calibrated what they hear behind the bell to what goes out the other end.
Just matching pitches and staying in tune and on time is asking a lot.

From your description I suspect this might be a contributing factor.

Do you record ANY of your rehearsals?

The "lot of players" I reference above DO have better than average listening skills. I have to believe that if they listened to a recording of even ONE of these read-throughs AND had the score in hand they would come up with markings (as recommended by Mr. Elliott) to get a fair reading of the music.

While I actually follow Mr. Elliott's advice and have my players put in markings, popular music has a kind of "musica ficta" that simply follows conventions, such as:
- always drop the volume after the intro
- ALWAYS keep the bass line below the lead line
- ALWAYS keep the rest of the lines below the bass line
- NEVER leave a football hanging

Once these unwritten rules are regularly followed, players can make things more interesting by breaking them ON PURPOSE.

But if your colleagues do not know the rules (and there are many more of them, with variations for type of pop) then you really MUST do markings to make sense of things.
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harrisonreed
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by harrisonreed »

hyperbolica wrote: Fri May 06, 2022 8:07 am Part of the problem I'm running into is that the part volumes are marked separately, but the players interpret most markings as "play at the same volume as the rest of the group", like you'd do in classical music, instead of the soloistic/background levels intended.
This is a pretty bad habit and not true of classical music at all, at least not "legit" or music from the Romantic period onwards.
This week we had an arrangement of Santana "Smooth" that no one but me was familiar with. The reading was cacophonous and such a disaster that it turned everyone against the tune - but I know it's a good arrangement.
These days we never ever start a new arrangement without listening to it first, starting with the original piece the arrangement was based on. Even if it has never been recorded, we check out the midi first.

Often the melody moves between parts, and getting them to rise and fall with that is difficult. Some people don't seem to "get" the soloistic style.
You already know the issues, for sure. This is not something you can rehearse your way through. There is nothing worse than un-stylistic, un-melodic "melodies" played on the trombone, especially if they are played "technically well".

Once we read "Birdland" and one excellent player kept adding a beat to a measure even after it was pointed out. We abandoned it and blamed the arranger just to keep from insulting this guy (actually one of the best semi-pros in the area).
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CalgaryTbone
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by CalgaryTbone »

Unfortunately, a lot of players have "holes" in their playing - items that are less developed than the rest of their skills. Problems with listening are the biggest source of those "holes". Practicing on your own is important - that is where you improve the most in your instrumental skills (technique, range, etc.), but ensemble playing (particularly in small groups w/o a conductor) is where you learn how to make your playing "fit" with others. Tuning in real time, when there might be a note held in one part. Time - not just knowing how to play a rhythm, but fitting it in the (hopefully) steady pulse of the group. Balance - knowing where the melody is, and having the instincts to bring out the occasional passage just enough to add interest, or set time, and more importantly, when to get out of the way. Ensemble - matching articulations, including note starts and endings. Style - there's a lot more than just legato and staccato, and straight and swing, Classical and Jazz.

If you want to play this music and you want it to sound better, all of the participants need to get on the same page as to how seriously they are taking the rehearsing. Listening to available recordings and recording your rehearsals sound like your best options to me, but remember that some players will take more time than others to absorb the differences between what they are hearing on a recording and what they are producing out of their own bell.

There are some players that never really "get" the listening part of their role as a performer. My teacher Ed Herman had a name for them - "Backstage Virtuosos". Players that can play tons of notes, but never quite fit in with the players around them. In my experience, players with great listening skills are always the ones that are most enjoyable to work with, even if their technique or range are just OK.

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hyperbolica
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by hyperbolica »

Because we're used to hearing pop music recorded, when we play acoustic without mic, amps, etc, we have to make it sound recorded. We're so used to playing within a dynamic level from one another, when the lead is f a background part may have to back way off. A goy with a sound board would do that automatically, but 4 guys with horns need some coaching to get there.

How about people who coach chamber ensembles, do you run up hard against the balance problem, and how do you handle it?
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harrisonreed
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by harrisonreed »

hyperbolica wrote: Mon May 09, 2022 11:45 am Because we're used to hearing pop music recorded, when we play acoustic without mic, amps, etc, we have to make it sound recorded. We're so used to playing within a dynamic level from one another, when the lead is f a background part may have to back way off. A goy with a sound board would do that automatically, but 4 guys with horns need some coaching to get there.

How about people who coach chamber ensembles, do you run up hard against the balance problem, and how do you handle it?
For our brass band, which mostly plays pop arrangements, the person with the melody will step out in front for their portion and play from memory. This is a lot easier with a group that has ten people because you usually get a break in the arrangement after your lead part is over. This fixes a lot of balance issues.

A lot of players don't know what "F" really means or how to "cut". These aren't the same thing, either. You have to be able to do both, sometimes at the same time but sometimes not. I remember a masterclass with Norman Bolter when he said "sometimes you need to hear what forte actually is" and he proceeded to peel the paint off the wall with a middle F. And Christian Lindberg, when he played with the Colorado Springs orchestra, started one piece off stage, playing mp, and he somehow cut through the whole orchestra like he was next to you in the seats. It didn't matter what dynamic he was playing, he was "present".

I don't know how you'd go about coaching that. I think I'd start with just trying to gauge it from out in front and use my hands like imaginary faders to try and balance the group with visual cues.

One last thought, if everyone is playing on big horns with deep mouthpieces, it's not going to work. You don't want a homogeneous sound with whoever is playing lead.
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Re: Balance in pop arrangements

Post by Macbone1 »

This balance question reminds me of a related issue - tempos. Conductor-less trombone groups tend to drag the beat and this is almost universal. The indicated tempo and style of the piece does not matter - it will probably drag.
So along with a mindset of balance, players need to have a mindset of....not "top of the beat" but actually "front edge of the beat" playing to keep the inevitable drag from kicking in. Shouldn't need a set drummer to keep tempo. Heck the drummer could also drag!
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